While driving through Alaska’s Copper River Valley along the Richardson Highway, perusing some of the most untrammeled scenery imaginable, RVers may not realize that the small outposts they encounter along the route — Gulkana, Copper Center and Tonsina — are practically metropolises compared to the seemingly endless expanse of awe-inspiring landscapes that await them inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. At 13.2 million acres, Wrangell-St. Elias is six times larger than Yellowstone, is larger than the nation of Switzerland and contains more than 150 glaciers. Yet the park is more than massive: Wrangell-St. Elias proves that good things are, in fact, worth working for, since travelers have to expend some effort in order to appreciate the park’s wonders.
The easiest way to enjoy Wrangell-St. Elias is to board a small plane at the Chitina Airport, then let one of the bush pilot companies describe the breath-stealing scenery that spreads out to the horizon in all directions. The famous Copper River, whose salmon are prized worldwide for their kindness to human palates, flows south toward Prince William Sound. A flight to the tiny adjacent towns of Kennicott-McCarthy reveals the Chugach Mountains on one side of the plane, the snow-draped Wrangell Mountains on the other.
People who prefer not to fly and those pressed for time should at least take the detour off of the Richardson Highway, 10 miles south of Glennallen, to the visitor center at Mile 106.8. Fans of wildlife, geology and history will find the exhibits in this center to be well-presented and informative, and the award-winning film is very well done — but does not even come close to capturing the park’s grandeur. Travelers must enter the park to begin to comprehend the array of scenery within Wrangell-St. Elias’ boundaries.
Only two roads exist within all those acres, however, and the going is slow along the most-traveled of the two routes, the 60-mile McCarthy Road. Truck campers with high clearance should not have much trouble negotiating the ruts that can wreak havoc on undercarriages, provided that travelers check the road conditions first and allow three hours for the journey.
“Is it worth the effort?” travelers may ask.
Anyone who marches along the Root Glacier in crampons, sips a drink on the deck of the Kennicott Glacier Lodge or tours the incomparable copper mill will almost certainly answer that question in the affirmative.
Travelers willing to explore the Last Frontier on its own terms should definitely seek out Wrangell-St. Elias sometime between mid-May and the end of September. Then they can congratulate themselves among all that wild beauty.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, (907) 822-5234, www.nps.gov/wrst